The Common Good
March 2005

A Church At The Crossroads

by Heidi Schlumpf | March 2005

Sex abuse scandal, priest shortages, celibacy, ordaining women: The issues roiling the Catholic Church offer challenges - and hope? - for the future.

Maria Teresa Martinez grew up in Mexico and came to the United States 33 years ago, eventually landing in Chicago. When she’s not watching her 3-year-old and 3-month-old grandchildren, the 60-year-old bundle of energy is volunteering at the legal clinic at her parish on the northwest side of the city. She can’t say enough good things about her pastor and doesn’t see much wrong with the Catholic Church.

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Suzanne Morse lives in Boston and sees plenty wrong with the institutional church. Born after Vatican II, she never grew up with that "Father’s always right" attitude. So when The Boston Globe began exposing priest sex abusers, Morse, who was working in communications for a nonprofit research institution, got involved with the lay reform group Voice of the Faithful. Today she serves as the group’s public relations point person.

On the surface, Martinez and Morse - aside from both being Catholic women - may not seem to share much in common. One is a working-class Midwestern Latino woman with relatively traditional views about Catholicism. The other is a middle-class Eastern Anglo working for change in the church.

Both, however, are the faces of the future of the Catholic Church in the United States.

A church of many colors. At Our Lady of Mercy parish in Chicago, Martinez is the go-to woman for just about everything. The parish of 3,000 families is served by two priests, one who recently arrived from Colombia. Martinez can be found at the parish at least three or four nights a week; she has served on the parish council and handles the "Sharing Parish" relationship with a wealthier congregation in the city, in addition to helping out with the multitude of little things that help a parish run smoothly.

Martinez was among 1,200 parishioners who crowded the church before dawn in early December for the parish’s Our Lady of Guadalupe celebration. A week later, she joined almost that many predominantly Filipino parishioners for their annual Advent Simbang Gabi Mass. The ethnic diversity of Our Lady of Mercy is typical of the future Catholic parish - it is more than one half Latino (from some 21 countries), less than one quarter Anglo, and the remainder a mixture of other ethnicities, in this case mainly Filipino. Of the seven Sunday Masses, three are in Spanish, three are in English, and one is bilingual. Even the parish council meetings are held in English and Spanish.

By 2050, Latinos are expected to constitute about one quarter of the U.S. population and more than half of the U.S. Catholic Church. Already, people of color make up almost half (46 percent) of the U.S. Catholic Church. Latinos alone, which comprise about 12 percent of the U.S. population, make up 39 percent of the Catholic Church.

"The American church of the future is a multicultural church, a church of many faces," says Alicia Marill, president of the National Catholic Council for Hispanic Ministry and assistant professor of theology at Barry University in Miami. "This is true not only about Hispanics, but also for other ethnic groups as well."

But Latino culture, perhaps more than any other ethnic group, is sure to transform the U.S. church, just as the huge influx of Irish immigrants did in the past century. Marill predicts that Latinos’ emphasis on community and family will challenge North Americans’ individualism, and Latinos’ sensitivity to social issues will encourage the church to remain involved and prophetic on such issues.

Although some have expressed concern at the growing number of Latinos who voted Republican in the last election because of so-called "family values" issues, Marill believes future generations of Latinos will continue to embrace traditional liberal causes. "We are sensitive to issues of injustice because we have experienced them in our countries of origin," she says. In addition, the "trauma of immigration" continues to affect second-, third- and even fourth-generation immigrants, she says.

Other priorities for Latino Catholics include lively worship with music and dance, an emphasis on public devotions and processions, encouraging vocations to the priesthood and training lay leaders, and most important maintaining the faith of youth.

"Our youth are our first priority," says Marill, who believes that young Latinos have a stronger Catholic identity than their Anglo peers. "They have devotion to Our Lady and see Jesus as amigo, or friend," she says. "Hispanic youth harbor in their hearts the faith of their parents and grandparents." But, as young Latinos are influenced by the wider U.S. culture, that Catholic identity is threatened.

Lay it on the line. Neither Martinez nor Marill saw the sex-abuse scandal as a burning issue among fellow Latino Catholics. But for Suzanne Morse, this latest crisis has literally changed her life.

The 31-year-old Morse was already feeling the pull to put her talents to use for the betterment of society in the aftermath of Sept. 11 when just a few months later the headlines hit about priests abusing children and about the hierarchy covering it up in her native Boston. "I didn’t want to be one of those people who just walked away," she says. "I felt like I had a responsibility, that I had to put my money where my mouth was. That’s the only way to repair the wounded spirit of the community."

Morse heard about a new group forming, called Voice of the Faithful, and when she discovered that her parents’ neighbor was involved, she decided to check it out. She got involved in VOTF’s Young Adult Working Group, and just last year went from volunteer to full-time employee.

Since its founding in 2002, VOTF has grown to nearly 35,000 members nationwide and has had to expand its scope to include dealing with the financial crisis resulting from the scandal, especially after the announcement of 80 parish closings in Boston this year. VOTF’s mission statement also includes the goal of "shaping structural change within the church," which they further define as "advancing meaningful and active engagement of the laity in the life of the church."

To Morse, the roots of the sexual abuse crisis and the financial crisis are the same: lack of transparency, accountability, and inclusiveness in the structures of the Catholic Church. And the bishops aren’t the only ones who seem to prefer the status quo. Despite all the positive language from Vatican II about the roles and responsibilities of laity, "most Catholics have not been socialized to take responsibility for the church," Morse says. "I think we’re at the very beginning of understanding how lay Catholics must move from being children to having an adult faith."

Whether lay Catholics mature or not will decide the future of the Catholic Church in the United States. Many fear that if lay Catholics remain passive, the U.S. church may face the same fate as the church in many European countries, where people are Catholic in name only, visiting churches only to "hatch, match, and dispatch" for baptisms, weddings, and funerals.

But for lay Catholics to accept their responsibility and the hierarchy to share it would be nothing less than a massive, fundamental shift in Catholic consciousness from the centuries-old feudal system to a more participative, democratic one, argues Father Donald Cozzens in his new book, Faith That Dares to Speak (Liturgical Press).

"I think it’s the laity’s moment, although I don’t want to create a laity-versus-clergy battle," Cozzens says. "We need structures that truly respect all the baptized. The question is, how can we be a church of fundamentally equal people?"

Take me to your leader. For those Catholics weary of the word "scandal," Cozzens warns there’s more to come, and he predicts it’s going to get worse before it gets better. The next wave of scandals will be financial, he says, as dioceses declaring bankruptcy will be forced to expose their finances to the courts. "I’m an optimist in the long run because I believe the Spirit is with the church, and we’ve survived worse crises before," he says. "But the immediate future is not rosy."

The church is facing a full-blown leadership crisis, Cozzens says, with the credibility of the bishops at an all-time low, the numbers of ordained leaders plummeting, and the morale of many priests sinking. "This is a critical moment for the ordained leadership in the church," he says, though he sees some seeds of hope. "While many priests have been discouraged and profoundly disturbed by the sex abuse crisis, a number have as a result become more humble, courageous, and committed to the gospel."

Yet other priests have withdrawn into the world of their parish, feeling they don’t have the energy to work for change beyond that limited scope. And the bishops have yet to hold themselves accountable for their part in the sex abuse crisis. Until that happens, Cozzens predicts the church will continue to lose its moral voice. "I think it will be difficult to regain the confidence in the teaching authority in the immediate future," he says. "It just doesn’t work that way; it’s going to take a while."

Meanwhile, the priest shortage has become more than a theoretical discussion as more and more Catholics realize what it’s like not to have someone to call "Father." In smaller rural dioceses, it’s not unusual for 80 parishes to be served by half that number of priests. Still, the large East Coast dioceses (not to mention those in the Third World) are still relatively priest-rich, and until they feel the pinch, serious consideration of radical changes will not happen.

Some see the solution in importing priests from Africa or Latin America, while others find solace in the rising numbers of priests-in-training in more traditional orders and seminaries. Those people would insist that Catholics must pray harder for vocations, and that young men need to answer the countercultural call. But others, including Cozzens, see plenty of vocations in the church - in the men and women in Catholic universities and graduate schools who are studying theology and want to serve the church, but don’t feel called to celibacy.

"I think we need to take a careful look at mandatory celibacy for diocesan priests," Cozzens says. Although he supports the charism of celibacy, perhaps for religious order priests, he says having married priests is "not a radically controversial issue."

Women priests, however, are another story, and Cozzens chooses his words carefully, given the current papal moratorium on even discussing the issue. "In the present situation and in the near future, I think the issue of ordaining women would be so strongly resisted by church leaders that it’s a remote possibility," he says. A more likely development would be a serious discussion of the possibility of ordaining women as deacons.

Talking ’bout my generation. But issues such as women’s ordination and married clergy are not the pressing questions on the minds of Catholics under 35. Polarization of the "red state-blue state" variety between liberal and conservative Catholics used to be considered the biggest challenge facing the U.S. church, until the sex abuse crisis took over the headlines. But even before that, younger Catholics were growing bored with the same old debates.

The new division is between those still concerned with liberal/conservative issues and those - usually younger Catholics - who are facing issues of identity and meaning, according to Sister Catherine Patten, RSHM, coordinator of the Catholic Common Ground Project, which was started by the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin in 1992 to address polarization among Catholics.

"The basic concern of the project that Catholics will be divided and hold each other hostage is true now more than ever," she says. "And the call to bring us together is more necessary than ever."

People old enough to remember Vatican II remain divided into two camps: Those who felt liberated by its changes and those who felt it destroyed everything they held dear. For many, every issue is evaluated through that lens: Does it advance the goals of Vatican II or return the church to where it was before the Council?

But half of all adult Catholics today were born after Vatican II, Patten notes. "For young adults the questions are, ‘Is there any meaning?’ or ‘Why belong to a church anyway?’ There’s a whole new generation out there who see the church as a choice," she says. "Those of us worried about liberal and conservative issues are going off the screen."

When college students enthusiastically embrace the practice of "eucharistic adoration," for example, older Catholics respond with either "How terrible that they’re going back to that old stuff" or "How great that they’re returning to that old stuff." "But what the younger people are really looking for is contemplation and silence," Patten says. "They don’t understand why we’re fighting about these issues."

Questions of trust - in current church leadership and in institutions - seem to cross generational lines in a post-sex abuse church. Patten notes that most of the issues that polarize Catholics concern sex, gender, and authority. "People are not arguing about whether there are three persons in the Trinity," she says. Of course, many older Catholics are concerned that the next generations won’t even know there are three persons in the Trinity, and the need for religious education is urgent for Catholics of many ages.

Morse, of Voice of the Faithful, admits that taking responsibility for the church is a harder sell to Catholics of her generation than to the Baby Boomers. "Young Catholics don’t have a sense that it’s life-or-death that they save the church," she says. "But there’s still a sense of affinity and a feeling that we all speak the same language."

Catholic identity is even stronger among Latino Catholics, and Maria Teresa Martinez proudly reports that her adult son still practices the faith and is raising her grandchildren as good Catholics. "The faith of the Latino community is strong, and it’s good for the rest of America to witness that faith," she says. "I’m not worried about the church."

Heidi Schlumpf is managing editor of U.S. Catholic magazine.

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